After months of contentious debate, a Bakersfield school district has voted to display the phrase "In God We Trust" on the walls of more than 2,300 classrooms, school libraries, administrative offices and the board's meeting room.
Adopted by Congress as the U.S. motto in 1956, the words will be highlighted in a poster along with portions of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the original national motto: e pluribus unum, Latin for "from many, one."
"We're not going to accept the agenda of some radical leftists who want to expunge God from public dialogue," Chad Vegas, an evangelical pastor who sits on the board of the Kern High School District, said in an interview Tuesday. "Instead, we're teaching our citizens -- including our children -- that the very foundation of government is that God gave them unalienable rights that cannot be usurped by the will of the majority or anyone else."
The board's action was seen by opponents as part of a broader effort to infuse local schools with religious doctrine. Vegas last year persuaded the board to change the official names of winter and spring breaks to Christmas and Easter recesses. In response to a question Tuesday, he repeated his position that evolution is "nonsense" but said he wasn't sure that he would seek to have intelligent design taught in science classes.
"I'm not opposed to it," he said. "I just haven't tried to do it."
Before an overflow crowd Monday night, board president Bob Hampton cast the sole dissenting vote in the 4-1 decision. As he has in the past, he argued that "the spiritual side of a student belongs in the home and in the church -- not in the school."
Designed by a volunteer graphic artist, the posters will cost the state's largest secondary school district about $12,000, officials said. The expense was hardly a problem, Hampton said, compared with the animosity directed at opponents.
"They're calling everyone who doesn't support it unpatriotic," he said.
The idea of posting "In God We Trust" in the schools originated with Bakersfield City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan, who in 2002 formed a nonprofit organization to get the motto displayed in every California city hall. Initially, posters of the motto set before a waving flag were to be purchased by her group, In God We Trust -- America, from the American Family Assn., a Mississippi-based conservative organization that for years has promoted prominent public displays of "In God We Trust."
Seeking a compromise, school board member Brian Batey suggested that the flag posters be scrapped and replaced by a montage of documents that frame the motto in terms of a civics lesson, with an explanation of its history drawn from material that he said was provided by the Boy Scouts of America.
"They're recognized for being nondenominational," Batey said. "They weren't putting a Protestant religious spin on it."
Batey described the outcome of the debate as "a victory for patriotism and supporting education."
"How could you oppose having the nation's motto on public schools -- especially when it's placed in an educational and historic context?" he asked.
In fancy script simulating the Constitution and other documents of the era, the poster explains that the selection of the motto during the Cold War "was partly motivated by the desire to make a distinction between communism, which promotes atheism (no beliefs), and Western capitalistic democracies (USA), which were for the most part Christian."
Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, questioned whether democracies can be described as Christian, given their roots with the pagan Greeks. He also said that the poster unfairly "tarred with the brush of communism" local families that are atheists or religious skeptics.
Decisions in several courts have upheld the constitutionality of "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency, with judges ruling that the words do not force religion on anyone.
Vegas, the sponsor of the measure, said the motto reflects Bakersfield's conservative nature, but opponents contended it more accurately reflects his intent to push Christianity on the sprawling district's 36,000 secondary-school students.
Chuck Cournyea, a minister at the 230-family Unity Church of Bakersfield, spoke against the idea at the school board meeting and followed up Tuesday with an e-mail to his colleagues in the Interfaith Alliance of Kern County.
"There are those in this community who have been elected to serve all its citizens," he wrote, "but have chosen to sell their souls for personal gain to the majority of voters who wish to have a particular 'Christian' agenda advanced in Kern County."
Cournyea then announced his resignation as the alliance's president, saying he was disheartened that representatives of the eight other faith organizations in the group had apparently stayed away from Monday's meeting.